“Tough guy. Billy calling. I want you to come back from Romania. Come to Soho,” read the text. I wasn’t actually in Romania, but that didn’t seem important. “I want you to take a vintage camera photo for me (for money but very little money).” Billy Brentford is often this cryptic.
What for, I texted back? “My supergroup. Dean St Studios. B/W. Analogue photos. Wanna look like a band on Stiff in 1978.”
Soho. Stiff Records. Last gangs in town and black and white film. It was a deal. So I found myself in Soho on a cold grey October day, a pair of Pentaxes in my camera bag and a bunch of black and white film, off to meet a band who went by the name Thee Concerned Citizens.
Billy Brentford is an old mucker with a fine music biz pedigree – on both sides of the microphone. Thee Concerned Citizens is his latest musical project, a left-wing broadside from the era of Dr Feelgood and The 101ers, splicing Socialist calls to action with a Pub Rock beat. His cohorts include members of The Bluetones and Paul Weller’s band, and singer-songwriter Chris T-T.
They were in Dean Street Studios for a couple of days to race through tracks for their album, timed to hit the shops (and internet aisles) in time for the forthcoming UK general election. It would be fair to say that David Cameron is not the intended listener.
For a good 20 years I was a music journalist, including a stint working on the NME’s website during the height of Britpop. The photo files were crammed with pics from the heyday of punk; snarling, sneering packs of skinny-trousered menace taken on black and white film, pictured in front of urban squalor, graffiti and decay. Stiff Records – one of Billy’s faves – introduced the likes of Elvis Costello, Madness, The Damned and Ian Dury – a soundtrack of dead-eyed discontent in a troubled decade.
It seemed churlish not to shoot it on a camera from that era too. Billy’s favourite band is The Clash, and The Clash’s longtime collaborator Pennie Smith still shoots on the Pentax ES IIs she used to take iconic shots like the cover of the band’s album ‘London Calling‘. I have a half-dozen of them after seeing her shoot a Manic Street Preachers gig on one some years back; they’re my favourite 35mm camera. A couple of ES IIs and a bunch of lenses are my usual set-up for when I’m travelling.
The Soho of today is rapidly losing its old edge; iconic old venues that hinted at the district’s darker underbelly – like Madam Jo-Jos – are being closed down to make way for luxury flats. Chain stores squeeze out the old shops. But Soho is still Soho. The Cees Cees glowered and stared with Stiff-era menace. We decamped back into the studio – it’s amazing how black and white film and pools of corridor lamplight can create such atmosphere.
Thee Concerned Citizens album isn’t out yet, but you can follow them on Twitter. Check out a post about shooting Billy’s other band – Thee Faction – 1970s style, and a review of the excellent Pentax ES II.